Finding the Origins of the City of Marble


Day 58: Passo della Cisa to Pontremoli (21 km)

Eimear, Emily and I awoke in our cosy dormroom in the Ostello della Cisa, a building of the Napoleonic era, to find a thick mist pressing against the windows.  We crawled reluctantly out from under our feather duvets, dressed quickly and hurried downstairs to the sitting room where our breakfast was waiting for us.  The three French gentleman were already seated and tucking into bread and jam.  The electric espresso maker had proved a bit too complicated for them so Emily took charge and soon the smell of coffee filled the room, its powerful effects brushing off the sleepiness induced by the misty morning.  The Frenchmen filled their cups to the brim as though it were filter coffee and I felt a need to warn them of the quantity of caffeine they were consuming – the equivalent of six espressos.  They didn’t seem too concerned however, and laughed merrily as they reached for their cups.  We had a relaxed breakfast chatting, exchanging emails and taking photos.  We only had 21 kilometres to walk to Pontremoli, and entirely downhill, so I was not in much of a rush to start our journey. The Frenchmen were determined to start out at 7.30am so we bid them goodbye and waved them off as they disappeared into the mist.  Emily, Eimear and I packed up our things, signed the guestbook of the hostel and were on our way just as the morning sun was starting to win the battle to penetrate the mist.

We continued on the road rather than the path, which Fausto and Cristina of the hostel had confirmed was under water.  There was no traffic and we walked safely and quietly through the mist listening to the bird calls coming from the dense woods.  Within twenty minutes we reached a sign for the Cisa Pass and stopped for the obligatory photograph.  The actual peak of the Pass was another few hundred metres ahead on which was perched a small chapel.  Just to the right of the chapel there is a wooden archway, placed there as a symbolic entrance to the region of Tuscany.  We did not pass through the archway as we were continuing on the road and not the path, but from the arch we could see through a break in the clouds and mist, which revealed a sunny landscape in the valley below.  We now had 18 kilometres of descent to look forward to so we stepped over the invisible line into Tuscany and followed the windy road down and down until we descended below the cloud cover into brilliant sunshine.  Jackets were quickly pulled off and sunscreen applied as we transitioned from autumn back to summer.  It was a Sunday and up until this point the road had been exceptionally quiet, but at about 9am we heard the first roar of a motorcycle engine racing up the road.  The mountain road was clearly popular with motorcycle joy-riders who revelled in the hairpin bends.  We suddenly found ourselves in a somewhat unpleasant position as the occasion daredevil felt it unnecessary to slow down upon seeing pedestrians and raced by, unconcerned with his or our safety.  We stuck close to the verge and crossed the road whenever we found ourselves in a blind spot.  In this way we managed to arrive in Pontremoli without incident.

Pontremoli lies within a narrow valley where the two rivers Verde and Magra converge.  The presence of the two rivers means the town is characterised by many bridges, most of medieval origin. The historic centre sits between the two rivers as on an island with a lovely square and many small pedestrian streets.  Above the town an imposing castle sits up high.  As we entered through the medieval entrance to the town we saw signs for the castle pointing up a narrow alley which wound steeply up the hill.  Although interested to see the castle we couldn’t bring ourselves to make the climb – at least not before we had found something to eat and had a rest.  The small street led us straight into the town square where there was a buzz of activity – a wedding party just coming out of the church and a gay rights demonstration was in progress.  The square offered many options for lunch but we settled on a café where we could sit outside and ordered artisan beers and flatbread topped with black olives, cheese and tomatoes.  An artisan gelateria on the other side of the square offered the perfect finish to our meal and we stood enjoying each delicious mouthful as we watched the tensions unfold between the gay rights demonstrators and a church group who had taken a position in the centre of the square.  The church group was demonstrating by standing in formation and silently readying for one hour.  The rest of the crowd were dressed in rainbow tie-dyed t-shirts, waving rainbow flags and even a Westland terrier had a rainbow bandana tied around its neck.  The tension between the two groups did not manifest itself into verbal abuse or violence, but it was nonetheless evident. A group of teenagers were playing a popular ball game and occasionally a volleyball would fall between the standing anti-gay rights protesters and the crowd would spontaneously erupt into applause. 

It was now almost 3pm and possible for us to check-in to the pilgrim accommodation at the Capuchin Monastery.  We crossed over a medieval bridge to reach the monastery that backed onto the side of the valley.  We were greeted warmly by one of the priests who, after stamping our credentials and accepting a donation, offered us the choice of two pilgrim menus, one at a pizzeria and the other at a trattoria where we were told we could sample some local cuisine.  We unanimously chose the trattoria and were presented with a business card of the restaurant with a stamp from the monastery which would entitle us to the 10 euro, two-course menu with water and wine.  We were then shown by an elderly lady who was a church volunteer to a long corridor where there were several dormitories, similar to a hospital ward.  The lady showed us the facilities and opened the door to one of the rooms where we had eight beds to choose from.

We were just getting organised when we heard a ‘bonjour’ from the corridor and opened the door to find the Frenchmen all showered and changed and ready to explore the town.  They invited us to join them at the trattoria for dinner, but as we were unsure of our plans we only tentatively agreed.  Tiredness had suddenly overcome us and still needing to shower and wash clothes we were reluctant to make any fixed plans.  For the next hour we each attended to our pilgrim chores.  We were delighted to find a terrace at the end of the corridor which was bathed in the afternoon sun.  Our clothes dried quickly as we lay in the sunshine chatting and dozing.  At 7pm we were ravenously hungry and looking forward to sample what our first meal in Tuscany had to offer.        

To reach the trattoria we had to cross both rivers and spent a moment on each of the bridges taking in the views of the mountains we had passed over earlier that day.  As we approached the restaurant we saw families and groups of friends milling around outside sipping drinks and chatting.  It was clearly a popular local spot. A smiley waitress showed us to a long table next to where the Frenchmen were already digging into their first course.  The waitress informed us that for the pilgrim menu they had a local dish known as a bomba di riso (rice bomb), which is riceball with a centre of meat, rolled in breadcrumbs and baked in the oven, and then for a second course a type of pasta known as testaroli which she described as similar to a crepe but much heavier, served with pesto.  It sounded quite strange but we were more than pleased to try something different.  Not long after we had started sipping our red sparkling wine the first course was served. Three large riceballs, each the size of a medium orange, were served cut in half on a dish.  One of my favourite Italian, or rather Sicilian, treats is the arancino, which translates as ‘little orange’ due to its shape.  An arancino is prepared in a similar way but in the centre there is traditionally a ragu sauce with peas.  Variations mean there are also vegetarian versions, generally with vegetables in a tomato sauce with cheese.  I had expected the bomba di riso (rice bomb) to be similar, but the Tuscan riceball had clearly originated from peasant food as the meat in the centre was a stewed meat – still on the bone!  The second dish however, made up for the plainness of the first.  Testaroli is thought to be the first type of pasta in Italy.  It is shaped into flat circles like a crepe, baked in the oven and then cut into slices.  It was quite heavy compared to pasta but very tasty and would give us lots of energy for walking the next day.  After the two courses we were too full for dessert and so left the restaurant feeling very contented and stood on the bridges again on our way back to the monastery, this time looking at the bright moon against the ink black sky and its reflection in the rivers.  The monastery was in complete darkness.  We let ourselves in through the gate and used our phones to find our way around the back and up the two flights of stairs to our dormroom.  With the full moon shining in through the large window we fell asleep, very pleased with our first day in Tuscany. 

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view of Pontremoli from the Cisa Pass

view of Pontremoli from the Cisa Pass


crossing a medieval bridge into Pontremoli

crossing a medieval bridge into Pontremoli


town square in Pontremoli

town square in Pontremoli

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Day 59: Pontremoli to Aulla (31 km)

We had been quite spoiled over the previous two days on the Via Francigena, as we had only walked a maximum of twenty kilometres each day, but on the 59th day we needed to cover 31 kilometres to Aulla.  I had called the monastery the day before to reserve three beds and had been told that we needed to arrive before the monastery closed at 6pm.  We therefore made an early start, but we couldn’t leave Pontremoli with such a long day ahead of us without a good breakfast, so we went first to the café in the town square where we had had lunch the day before.  The glass case under the counter was full of exceptionally large cornetti (Italian croissants) and we were presented with a list of all of the possible fillings – cream of pistachio, cream of hazelnut, milk chocolate, white chocolate, fig jam, apricot jam…the list went on and on.  I was quick to choose a cornetto with pistachio cream and Eimear followed by example, while Emily decided on the fig jam.  When the cornettti were served with our cappuccinos we were all very pleased with our decision.  I had never had such a large cornetto in Italy, nor such a delicious one.  I could hardly believe it when I went to pay – 2 euro!  How can other countries compete with this kind of quality and value for money? All three of us felt a bit of a pang as we walked over the bridge for the last time to leave Pontremoli.  We had only stayed one night, but the place had had a remarkable impression on each of us.  It is a place where you can feel instantly at home, and although small, has so much to offer.  We had only seen and experienced a very small part of it but we hoped one day to have the chance to come back to this little Tuscan gem at the foot of the Apennines. 

Our journey through the Apennines was not quite over.  As I had experienced through much of my journey up until this point in Italy, where the valley and flat terrain lay, so too did the main roads.  To make the Via Francigena safe therefore, it was necessary to walk above the roads on mountain trails.  This difficult terrain meant the 31 kilometres were far more challenging than we had anticipated.  It was also only Emily’s third day walking and it was not long before her feet began to ache.  The temperature hovered at about 30 degrees and after a succession of steady inclines we were dripping wet and exhausted.  As the white Carrara Mountains appeared in the distance our energy levels started to fall. It was getting later and later and I started to become concerned that we would not arrive in Aulla in time to check-in at the monastery.  I felt badly pushing Eimear and Emily when they were feeling so tired, but we no longer had the option for them to take a bus or train.  We were in the woods, walking on well-kept trails, but far from any towns with bus services.  It was already five o’clock when we reached the outskirts of Aulla, which we found to be quite a sprawling town.  The Via Francigena signs led us to a path that was closed off and when we asked a priest who was walking by where the Via Francigena continued he pointed to a high chain-link fence that was blocking our way.  We asked him what we should do and he recommended climbing onto the bridge where the fence ended.  The drop under the bridge was about 30 feet and with a heavy rucksack I was not eager to try this suggestion.  We were so pressed for time however, and it was after all a priest who had recommended it, that we walked up to the bridge and took off our rucksacks.  Emily clambered over first, then Eimear passed two rucksacks over, then she climbed over.  I handed Eimear my rucksack and then pulled myself over the railings.  It was not one of the best moments on the Via Francigena, and I certainly tried not to imagine the possible headlines as I looked down at the dry riverbed far below.  Both feet firmly back on the ground we put on our rucksacks and hurried on our way.  We were now however, in a construction site and I couldn’t help swearing under my breath as I realized that we were trapped inside of it.  Where the path joined a supermarket carpark there was another chain-link fence.  Fortunately someone else had found themselves in our position as where two of the panels joined I found the connecting wire had been cut, so I lifted one panels out of its cement block stand and we quickly slipped through.  It was 5.30pm and we were still not at the monastery.  We quickened our pace and were moving swiftly along a footpath alongside a busy road when I stopped a lady to ask her how far it was to the monastery.  She knew it well and was very familiar with the Via Francigena.  She offered to show us the way.  Once we were back on the road we passed some construction workers, one of whom called out to the woman walking with us.  She told him she had found three pilgrims on their way to the monastery.  He greeted us and offered to give us a ride in his car.  It was ten minutes to six and I was not about to refuse, so we piled into the car and pulled up outside the monastery at 6pm on the dot.  Hot and tired we walked into the stone interior of the monastery where we found a friendly priest and a lovely Via Francigena museum. 

The museum had Roman and medieval artefacts demonstrating the importance of the town on the Via Francigena.  The Abbadia di San Caprasio, founded in 884 AD was one of the oldest stopping places on the route.  I was informed by the priest who stamped our credentials that the parish had invested a significant amount of resources into both the museum and the pilgrim accommodation and that in the previous year over 1500 pilgrims had stayed there.  He saw how tired we were so invited us to sit down and kindly offered us cold sparkling water and a Baci chocolate each (chocolate ‘kisses’ filled with hazelnuts).  Feeling a bit revived we followed him outside and around the block to the entrance to the pilgrim accommodation.  We found wonderfully modern dormrooms and bathrooms, similar to a good hostel.  I was very impressed and was more so when we visited one of the restaurants that offer a pilgrim menu.  We received a cheerful welcome and although we were not given a price we were told that we would eat very well and for very little.  This was an offer we could not refuse so we placed our trust in the owner who first served us a generous bowl of homemade minestrone soup packed with lovely vegetables and beans.  A huge salad with fresh mozzarella then followed.  We each had a bottle of local beer and for dessert a martini glass filled with fresh red-ripe strawberries and vanilla ice cream.  For 15 euro each this was amazing value.  The best part was how pleased the owner was to welcome pilgrims to his restaurant.  He gave us each a business card and we promised to ‘like’ him on Facebook.  Aulla was from appearances clearly an economically depressed area but from very moment we entered it we became aware of the generosity and kindness of its people.    

distant view of the Carrara Mountains

distant view of the Carrara Mountains


Eimear and Emily in the museum at Aulla

Eimear and Emily in the museum at Aulla


Labyrinth - symbol of pilgrimage

Labyrinth – symbol of pilgrimage

Day 60: Aulla to Sarzana (16 km)

The morning of the 60th day on the Via Francigena we had a few details to work out before we could start on our way.  The first was to find out how Emily could get back to Rome.  Her three days on The Way were already over and we all felt a little sad to have to part ways.  Aulla is quite well connected so a solution was easily found.  The other problem however was a little more complex.  I had tried unsuccessfully to contact the pilgrim accommodation in Sarzana, but after several attempts I had to come to terms with the fact that it was probably no longer available. I tried to contact the Sarzana tourist board but after being reconnected several times with no result I had to make a decision.  In my list of accommodation I had a very good recommendation for the pilgrim accommodation in Avenza which was about 16 kilometres beyond Sarzana.  I decided that we could walk to Sarzana and then take a train to Avenza, stay the night, and then return to Sarzana then next day to continue on the Via Francigena.  It was not ideal, but it was better than trying to walk too far or to find ourselves without accommodation, so I called the Monastery in Avenza and reserved two beds.  It was time to say goodbye to Emily so with hugs and some pictures we started on our separate ways – Emily to the train station and Eimear and I into the mountains. 

My guidebook had suggested only walking 17 kilometres on this day as the terrain was steep and the paths rocky and uneven.  I had never known Alison Raju to exaggerate when she makes these recommendations so I took her advice.  She was absolutely right!  From the moment we walked out of Aulla the way was always up and the paths narrow and slippery.  We made slow progress and wondered when we would ever reach the top.  Frustratingly after the first large climb we had to come down two hundred or so metres only to climb them again.  The last peak to climb was on a narrow path that passed through a village of stone houses with narrow streets which seemed like it belonged to another era.  It was appropriately called Vecchietto – ‘Little Old’.  A lady who could only be described as ancient sat near a fountain and gave us a sweet smile as we walked by.  A few houses along we saw a framed newspaper article with a picture of the woman we had passed which informed us that she was 100 years old and had lived in the village her whole life. How incredible!  Eimear and I tried to image spending a century in such a village.  It had once had a little shop and a post office but they had closed decades ago from the style of the sign.  We peered down the little alleyways revealing the irregular stone buildings with their crooked doorways and small windows wondering curiously about their inhabitants.  Within a minute we had passed through the village and were climbing along a forest path past small vineyards that clung to the steep mountainside.  After passing a wayside altar to the Virgin Mary we were back in the forest and would not see another habitation until we were halfway down the other side of the mountain.

We were so hot and exhausted when we finally reached the top of the mountain that we immediately collapsed on the side of the mountain track to rest.  Unconcerned with getting dusty, we pulled out our lunch and ate hungrily, needing to replenish our energy.  Within half an hour we felt rested and ready to tackle the descent to the coastal plain of Liguria.  Going down is generally a relief after a steep incline, but constantly descending for over two hours puts an enormous strain on your knees and quad muscles.  After an hour my legs were starting to shake with the strain.  We had no opportunity to stop however, as a rumble of thunder in the distance clearly told us that a storm was on its way.  A strong wind picked up and the thunder continued.  We were not so worried about getting wet, but rather getting caught in a thunder and lightning storm when we were so exposed on the mountainside.  The western side of the mountain was quite barren in comparison to thick forests of the eastern side.  We had a clear view of the valley below where the Magra River, which we had crossed in Aulla, flowed into the Ligurian Sea which lay about 10 km in front of us.  We reached a small village just as it started to rain lightly.  We could have stopped to shelter, but it was almost 3pm and we were now starting to become concerned that we would not arrive at our accommodation before it closed at 6pm.  Again we found ourselves pressed for time and hurrying along country roads.  Once we arrived in the outskirts of Sarzana we had  walk for another half an hour until we reached the train station.  Timing was fortunately on our side, as a train arrived within five minutes and twenty minutes later we pulled up to Avenza station, the striking mountains of Carrara for the first time clearly in view.  I had been looking forward to seeing these mountains from which the famous sparkling white Luna marble is quarried.  This marble was first used in the building projects in Rome of Julius Caesar and later his successor Augustus.  It was the marble that Augustus was referring to when he made the claim that he had found Rome a city of bricks and left if of marble (as Suetonius records in his Life of Augustus).  Buildings made of Carrara marble (or Luna Marble as it was called by ancient Romans) which are in good condition today include the Altar of Peace, the facing of the Pyramid of Cestius and the Columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.  Since Roman times the marble has been sought after for sculptures and to decorate buildings.  It can be found today in all corners of the world including London’s Marble Arch, La Pieta’ of Michelangelo and the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. 

We got a little lost on our way to the Parish of San Pietro Apostolo but with the help of some friendly locals we were soon ringing the bell of church.  We were ushered through a courtyard into an office where we presented our credentials and were offered a seat and a glass of cool sparkling water.  Across the square from the church was the pilgrim accommodation which turned out to be a recently renovated space with two dormrooms and a bathroom.  We were handed the keys and offered a choice of having breakfast the next morning at the local café or patisserie, compliments of the parish.  All that was asked for in return for this wonderful generosity was that we drop the keys through the letterbox before we leave along with any donation we cared to make. 

Once we had showered and changed Eimear and I were quite eager to see the sea which was only two or so kilometres away.  We had a romantic idea of having a lovely fish dinner by the sea but after walking the two kilometres we disappointedly found ourselves separated from the sea by a tall fence and a mass of concrete for the port.  There were no nice restaurants so we reluctantly returned to the square by the church for a pilgrim menu dinner at a trattoria.  We each had a dish of pasta with a large side of grilled vegetables which we washed down with a large beer.  The next morning we needed to make an early start as not only did we have to walk 28 km to Massa, but we also needed to catch the train back to Sarzana to start where we had finished that day.  So with legs still a bit wobbly from the intense day of climbing over the Apennines, Eimear and I headed back to our ‘private’ pilgrim accommodation for a much-needed night’s rest. 

a mountain trail on the way to Sarzana

a mountain trail on the way to Sarzana


first view of the Ligurian Sea

first view of the Ligurian Sea

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Day 61: Sarzana to Massa (28 km)

Motivated by the promise of our cornetto and cappuccino breakfast, Eimear and I got ready quickly, left our rucksacks in the accommodation and walked across the square to the café.  We were able to choose from a variety of cornetti – plain, filled with apricot or fruits of the forest jam, with custard, or with white or milk chocolate.  Within minutes we were contentedly munching away observing the hustle and bustle of locals coming in for rushed coffees on their way to work or stopping for a chat and a relaxed breakfast.  Now full of energy we collected our rucksacks, dropped off the keys and a donation at the church and walked back to the train station to catch a train back to Sarzana. 

We weren’t as lucky with timing as we had been the day before, as we had to wait forty minutes for a train.  Annoyed with the delay we went to have another coffee, but within the hour we were back on the Via Francigena heading out of the Sarzana into the woods above the town.  The plain of Luni lies between Sarzana and Avenza and we had wonderful views as we walked along woodland paths along the mountainside.  The path eventually descended into the valley itself and we walked through small villages, past fields and orchards.  Once we crossed the main road that divided the valley in two we started to approach the ancient Roman site of Luna. 

The Grande Tempio at Luna

The Grande Tempio at Luna

Originally Etruscan, this port town on the estuary of the river Magra was settled by 2000 Roman citizens in 177 B.C.  First important for its strategic location in defending the port, it became better known in the late-first century B.C. as the port from which the gleaming white marble of the Luna marble (or Carrara marble as it is known today) was shipped.  The Via Francigena runs alongside the archaeological site and we passed the remnants of both the Great Temple and the theatre.  From excavations of the temple a terracotta sculpture was discovered with the goddess Luna in the centre with Apollo to her left and a male god, perhaps Dionysus to her right.  The association with the location and the goddess Luna is explained by ancient writer Strabo, writing at the time of Julius Caesar, to have originated with the Greeks.  ‘Luna…is a city and also a harbour, and the Greeks call the city as well as the harbour “Harbour of Selene”’ (Strabo, 5.2.104).  Selene was the Greek goddess of the moon and so the Romans named the city for their goddess of the moon – Luna.  Strabo also speaks of the importance of the port for the transportation of the local marble:

The quarries of marble, both white and mottled bluish-grey marble, are so numerous, and of such quality (for they yield monolithic slabs and columns), that the material for most of the superior works of art in Rome and the rest of the cities are supplied therefrom; and, indeed, the marble is easy to export, since the quarries lie above the sea and near it, and since the Tiber in its turn takes up the cargo from the sea and conveys it to Rome’ (Strabo, 5.2.107-9).

The Luna harbour has long since silted up and the city was abandoned in the early 13th century as the city suffered from Saracen attacks and was plagued by malaria a result of the marshlands that covered the former harbour.  Eimear and I did not take the time to visit the archaeological site, though I would have very much liked to.  We still had 19 km to go and some climbing ahead so we continued past the site where unfortunately the signage suddenly disappeared.  We wasted quite a lot of time trying to decipher from the small map in my Official Via Francigena guide which way to take.  I finally made a decision to follow a small road that I believed would meet up with the route in about half a kilometre.  It took a little while to find, but eventually we were back on track, literally, as we followed the train tracks for the next 7km back to Avenza station where we had started our journey that morning. 

It was quite strange to find ourselves back in Avenza, but we only stopped long enough to get something for lunch, and then continued over the train tracks towards the Carrara Mountains.  We passed many marble quarry yards on our way, filled with huge blocks of the pure white stone.  The mountain tops glistened white in the bright midday sun.  I found myself fascinated by them thinking of the all the beautiful creations made from their stone.  We were almost at the foot of the mountains when we walked over a ridge and started to walk on a path that wrapped around the mountain chain with the valley and sea below to our right.  This path later joined a road which followed the mountainside, mostly level, and with little traffic.  There was a slight sea breeze and the shade of the dense foliage kept us mostly cool as we walked into the late afternoon.  We could see Massa in the distance long before we reached the city’s limits.  A great fortress sat above the city, and Eimear and I both hoped that we would not need to climb so high to reach our accommodation that night in the Capuchin Monastery.  I had read the monastery was above the city and after a long day of walking the prospect of that last climb was starting to feel a bit too much for us. 

We walked through the outskirts of Aulla for an hour before we entered the centre.  It was almost 6pm so I didn’t waste time with looking at the map but walked into a tobacconists to ask for directions.   I knew we were close, but the winding streets on the hillsides was difficult to navigate.  The friendly gentleman in the shop gave me detailed directions which led us accurately to our destination. The climb was not too steep or long and once we arrived at the square of the church and monastery we turned to look at the spectacular view below.  The city of Massa lay before us, spreading down from the hills to the sea.  We rang the bell of the monastery and were welcomed by one of the priests who showed us to a room with an en-suite bathroom and also to a small garden where we could hang our clothes to dry.  We asked him for some recommendations of where to eat, including where to get a gelato and he directed us the Piazza Aranci, ‘Square of Oranges’, where he assured us we would find an excellent gelateria.  The garden was already in the shade so I did not have great hopes that our laundry would be dry by morning, but it needed to be done so we went about our evening routine of washing and showering before walking back into the centre in search of a good meal.  It was only a Wednesday evening, but the centre was buzzing with activity.  There was also a slight chill in the evening air but that didn’t stop friends and families gathering outside bars and restaurants enjoying aperitifs.  It was still quite early for dinner in Italy but after assessing our options Eimear and I did not hesitate in walking into an appealing pizzeria.  We each ordered a cold beer and a pizza and had just started eating when the restaurant began to fill up with locals.  A little expensive at 8 euro for a pizza plus a 1.50 for a cover charge (bread that we did not receive) we remarked how spoiled a few weeks in Italy had made us.  The pizza was better than anything I had ever had in either the UK or the USA and at almost half the cost, but we had quickly become accustomed to the incredible standards of Italy.  I have had pizzas in Naples that were tremendous for only 3 euro and am now ruined for life.  To compensate for the ‘inadequate pizza’ we went in search for the gelateria in the square.  We couldn’t see it at first but when we saw a couple walking with ice cream cones we looked for where they had come from and spotted a small shop at the far end of the square.  It was indeed the promised gelateria with over twenty-five flavours to choose from.  I indulged in tiramisu and stracciatella with cream on top and Eimear followed my example after much deliberation.  It was her penultimate day on the Via Francigena and she was becoming very aware that there would not be many more gelatos to be enjoyed. 

Now thoroughly content Eimear and I walked back to our little room in the monastery.  We rang the doorbell and announced we were the ‘pellegrine’ and were buzzed it.  The window of our room looked out onto the lights of the city and the deep blue of the sea stretching out in the distance.  We admired the view for a few moments, just taking in how incredibly fortunate we were in that moment.  Tired limbs and heavy eyelids finally drew us to our beds – simple campbeds which squeaked when we moved and Eimear’s even collapsing at one point in the night.  We were warm and safe – what more could a pilgrim ask for and indeed, what more did we need?

The Carrara Mountains

The Carrara Mountains

Luna marble in stockyards

Luna marble in stockyards




Piazza Aranci, Massa

Piazza Aranci, Massa


Contribution by Eimear Friers


My Via Francigena Alphabet

Appennini. Leaving Pontremoli, The Appennini looked rugged and so far away. It was daunting to see how far we had to go.


Blisters. That is all.

Cappuccino e Corentto. The delicious daily pilgrim breakfast, we pilgrims needed plenty of energy. My favourite cornetto was bigger than the plate it was served on and filled with a pistachio paste.

Pistaccio cornetto

Danilo. Danilo’s house was on the Via Francigena route and overlooked the river Po. He took us across the river on his speed boat, saving us an 8 km alternate walk. At his house he fed us beer, bread and cheese which we had at a stone table in his garden.


Exhaustion and elation. What I felt collapsing onto my bed each night.

French Friends. At the Cisa Pass hostel we met three lovely pilgrims from France, it was just us and them that evening and we all ate together. We talked in French, English, Italian and hand gestures. They told me they did not consider Babybell a cheese when I suggested make a cheeseboard with our very limited ingredients.

French guys

Gelato. Wonderful gelato. I got Nutella flavour one night. It was two thirds solid Nutella. My favourite combination was banana and strawberry yoghurt flavour, it was the perfect mid morning snack.

Honeysuckle. I could smell it everywhere.

Isolated. Describes the hostel just before the Cisa Pass where we met our French friends. At an elevation of 1000 metres there was nothing else around. The mist and the cold made it feel more remote. Inside there was a living room with a wood burning stove which was the best thing ever, so cosy. We dried our damp clothes and stayed up late chatting, reading and writing in front of the stove.

mist with Emily

Julia. A great friend who made it possible for me and others to have this amazing adventure. In walking from Canterbury to Rome, she has inspired people and helped bring publicity to the walk. She looked out for me the whole time and I was so impressed by her determination, knowledge and mental and physical strength. I had such a great time and would love to do the whole walk some day.

me on river

Kilos. I had too many of these in my bag despite trying my best to pack lightly. I ended up sending about 10 Kilos of stuff home which was expensive but worth it.

Lucca, Luca. Lucca, the town where I ended my journey. Luca, director of the European Association of the Via Francigena. He took us to a traditional Tuscan restaurant in Piacenza where we drank red wine out of bowls and had Pisarei e Faso, a local dish with pasta and beans, it was so comforting.

Marble. In and around Aulla we passed several factories which stored Luna marble. It was cut into blocks which looked like ice bergs. You could see white patches in the mountains where the raw marble was exposed. This is what the Romans used to build their statues. Transporting it to Rome must have been a challenge.


Owls, Otters. Some of the wildlife we were lucky to see, unfortunately I didn’t get any photos of these. We saw a wolf, deer, snakes, lizards and fireflies too.

Pizza, Pasta. Lots.


Quarries. Walking through industrial areas, we passed several. They often contained an aquamarine lake which must have been caused by the minerals in the water.

Rome. Rome, Julia’s final destination and the official end of the route was a constant presence on the walk. We were reminded of the Romans by ruined bridges and buildings, statues and signs. Julia and Emily, who both know Rome well had long discussions about the best places to eat, the nicest parks, the people and the dialect. It made me want to continue on until Rome too. 

Shrines. We saw lots of these along the route, they were always so colourful. 


Thunder and lightening. Leaving Fidenza we were surrounded by huge thundery storm clouds. Up high, we could see them moving in on the town and just bursting. There was a charged atmosphere; lots of wind and animals hiding, running round and making noise. Somehow we managed to dodge any heavy showers that day.

me walking

Up. The direction we walked in a lot of the time.

Verona. The home of our walking buddy Francesco, a boyscout with a lovely, warm laugh. He was 19 years old and walking by himself. He found a squeaky rubber chicken which became his mascot.

Francesco with chicken

Wild boar. We had a very close encounter one of these.

Xeric. I struggled here so googled adjectives beginning with X. “Xeric: of, relating to, or adapted to a dry environment.” This is a joke.

me in river

Yum. Thoughts when we entered the pilgrim accommodation in Cassio to find tables filled with fruit, wine, cheeses, salamis and sweets for us to help ourselves to free of charge. I felt like I was in an M&S advert. It was surreal but wonderful and such a generous surprise.

Cassio hostel

Zanzara. Italian for mosquito. I was only bitten three times but I am allergic to everything and had huge, plague like sores.

bug bite


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6 Responses to Finding the Origins of the City of Marble

  1. Yvonne McNeil says:

    A great achievement and a blog that makes interesting reading for my own planned pilgrimage to Rome.
    Did you take sleeping bags by the way?
    Best Wishes from New Zealand.

    • Julia says:

      Dear Yvonne, so glad you have found the blog useful. Where are you planning to start your journey to Rome? I did have a light sleeping bag, which was mostly for the Italian section where I stayed in pilgrim accommodation. If you are planning to walk in Italy during the summer months I would recommend bringing a sleeping bag liner as well, as often sleeping bags are just too hot to sleep comfortably.
      Good luck with your plans and your pilgrimage.

  2. Lynn Irvine says:

    Hello Julia,
    We have been following you with great interest. My husband and I are planning this next year and have been comparing our stops with your stops. However you really push yourself some days so we will be taking a little longer. I eagerly await your next post. We plan to start in the middle of July and to take about 115 days with a few days rest in some places. Your diligence and dexterity are amazing, you should be very proud of yourself. I hope you finished in good health and look back on your achievement as something very special.
    Lynn from Australia

  3. Sheilana Macaulay says:

    Again a very interesting, informative and entertaining blog, Julia. I also thoroughly enjoy the history, you do it well!
    Can’t wait for the next instalments, particularly from Lucca to Rome as my walk starts soon.

  4. Vicky Williamson says:

    Julia, I have been following you for some weeks now and I’m impressed by your resilience and fortitude. I’m also enjoying reading all the history notes. Most importantly I am noting difficulties and challenges you have faced because a friend and I plan to walk from Canterbury Cathedral to Rome beginning in August 2016. As I’m now a pensioner and living in New Zealand I don’t have enough time to do it in stages. We’re also marathoners so we’re fit. I hope that your knee has recovered as you are not commenting on it these days.

  5. Mary Kirk says:

    Hi, Julia. very relieved to see a new instalment of the blog, as you had gone so silent. When did you get to Rome? I have thought about you every day and sent wishes for your safety and wellbeing.

    Did you mention a meeting in November in your reply to a previous comment? Is that a CPR meeting, or just for the elite who’ve made the journey?

    I’m also wondering if you would be able to send a list of the accommodation you used with any comments. I realise that may be a big ask.

    Best wishes and well done! Mary (met you in March in London)

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